Any doubt that Mitt Romney would win the Republican presidential nomination vanished when Rick Santorum left the race. It also marked the end of Romney's time as the defining figure in the overall contest for the White House.
The GOP nomination process was seen by many as a competition between Romney and an entertaining cast of I'm Not Mitt Romney challengers. Questions were raised about Romney's perceived weaknesses and whether he could win over the hearts and votes of conservatives. But now President Obama moves to center stage and becomes the defining figure of the general election campaign. Now it's about Obama, not Romney, as the election becomes primarily a referendum on his first term in office.
The most important indicator of the president's prospects will be his job-approval rating. That rating will be very close to his share of the vote on Election Day. In 2004, President George W. Bush had a 51 percent job approval rating and won 51 percent of the vote.
Obama's ratings suggest we are heading for a potentially very close race in November. For the past 32 months, the full month approval ratings for the president have been remarkably stable, holding to a very narrow range of 44 percent to 49 percent. People seem to have formed an opinion of the president, love him or hate him, and nothing can change their minds. Those who oppose the president tend to feel more strongly about it than those who support him.
For most of the past three years, the president's ratings have stayed in an even narrower band of 46 percent to 48 percent. Those numbers suggest Obama would earn just under 50 percent of the vote on Election Day. If the president can win over a few more voters and move those numbers up a bit in the coming months, he is very likely to keep his job. If the president's ratings falter, Romney is likely to be moving into the White House next January.
Economic concerns dominate the voters' agenda, and here the numbers for the president are more troubling. Forty-nine percent of the nation's voters trust Romney more than the president when it comes to the economy. Just 39 percent trust Obama more.
That double-digit advantage for Romney is consistent with other data showing a general lack of confidence in the president's economic policies. Only 37 percent give him positive reviews for his handling of the economy so far.
Middle-income voters are especially likely to have more confidence in Romney. Obama does best among those who earn less than $20,000 a year and those who earn more than $100,000 annually.
Especially troubling for the White House is the fact that 20 percent of Democrats trust Romney more than Obama on this core issue.
On other issues, however, Romney and Obama are essentially even. This includes health care, taxes, national security and energy.
Still, in a year when economic concerns trump all other issues, these numbers represent a good starting point for Romney. But what really matters is how voters feel in November. If the economy improves between now and then, confidence in the president's economic policies -- and his job approval ratings -- are sure to improve as well, and he'll be much tougher for Romney to beat.